Some people take up baking in midlife. They go hard on Pilates. I’ve been reading the Five Books of Moses.

Fiction: The Houseguest

We’re getting a houseguest, I tell my husband in bed. He turns off the TV, switches the light.

You could have asked.

Act first, apologize later, I say, quoting his own life’s motto back to him. Besides, I say, it is written. One of the 613 commandments! I say this, as if I could ever list more than a handful, as if we’ve ever arranged our lives in accordance with any of them.

Thou shalt open thy door for strangers, I try this sotto voce.

He rolls toward the wall. Some people take up baking in midlife. They go hard on Pilates. I’ve been reading the Five Books of Moses.

I touch his shoulder, the muscle tensing beneath my fingers.

Now’s not the time, he says.

The kids will love him. Think of him like an au pair! A built-in babysitter! It will be good for them! For us.

Him? he says.

We have the room. Do you know how rare spare rooms are in the city?

I live here too, he says.

It’s the least we can do.

The guest arrives in a cloud of cologne. Cologne is very big where he’s from. This much I remember. When I was his age, I too was a houseguest—in his country. The sun was hot and the sweat was rampant and air conditioning nonexistent. Water was used sparingly and only at nighttime, towels stiff from the line. Everywhere I went, fragrance followed. On the bus, in the cafe, discotheque, along the promenade, in the wavy, salt and pepper hair of my host father on the patio chewing khat until dawn. The smell ripe like exertion and desire and pride. Ripe like being alive. The smell of my houseguest whips me back. What would I give to be 19 again? Leaning against a stone wall laced in purple bellflower, gazing up at the infinite summer moon.

Come in, come in, I say. His scent lingers, cloying and sweet. He is tall and skinny, too skinny, skin and bones.

We’ll fatten you, I promise, which sounds like a threat.

He carries his luggage into the guest room, the room with the biggest closets, the most windows, the best light. I’ve laid out towels, cut sprigs of fresh lilac from the neighbor’s bush and fitted them into a modest vase. The children have placed Halloween candy on his pillow. I gesture like a game show host.

Mi casa es tu casa.

He looks at me, blank.

Bayit, I say. Bayit sheli bayit shelach.

Shel-cha, he corrects.

The houseguest settles in. He unpacks his stuff, spreading piles on the floor. He takes a shower. He asks for soda. He asks for the Wi-Fi password. He wields the remote. He makes phone calls, loudly, in his language. He calls me mom. They all will call me mom.

His name contains a river of “r”s I cannot wrap my mouth around. Whenever I try, my face turns vitamin red. The children laugh.

The houseguest does not find it funny.

The children treat him like a new toy. They are five and seven. They jump on the couch beside him, climb on his shoulders. They whip out a puzzle, shake it in his nose like a maraca. They demand: Play with us!

Great idea! I holler from the kitchen, my hands wet with raw meat. Teach them your native tongue while you’re at it. Children are sponges at this age.

Maybe later, he says. Maybe later is one of his favorite English phrases.

I make a big meal to welcome him. Chicken and rice, the cross-cultural standard, the universal crowd pleaser. The kids set the table, folding napkins into triangles and squares, but there is a problem. The houseguest says it like I should have known better. He clucks, he tsks. He will not eat my one dish wonder. He will only eat—

Understood, I say, chastened. From now on, I will drive to the special supermarket for his specially slaughtered, specially blessed meat.

My husband mutters that is some nerve. This isn’t his house. Do not accommodate. But accommodate is what I do. He is our guest, after all. It is important to make him feel comfortable.

The city is overwhelming! The houseguest has never been out of the country. He has never been on an airplane, much less the subway. I escort him to the station. I show him how to swipe. The platform is dirty. Pigeons coo and shit from the rafter beams. They don’t have pigeons where he comes from. The birds make him nervous, flitting around, flapping, pecking. Everything makes him nervous. He flinches when fat rats bust out of trampled fastfood bags, dart across the tracks. The trains are delayed. Nothing runs according to schedule.

Why all the lies? He says.

I shrug. Track changes, construction, sick passengers.

He shakes his head, indignant. If you say you are coming you should come. In my country—

I know, I say. You’ll get used to it.

The next evening, he stumbles in the door distraught. Apparently, he got arrested.

Arrested? I say in disbelief. He flaps an orange summons slip.

I fell asleep on the subway.

Everyone sleeps on the subway. What else did you do?

Jet-lag is a bitch, he says. Bitch sounds like beach. The kids snicker. Maybe, he says, I stretched out on the seat.

Like he owned the place, my husband adds under his breath.

I posit: People don’t love people from your country.

He says, My country is your country.

I disagree, even though a part of me agrees.

I dust off my bicycle and raise the seat. Like this, he comes and goes. I do not know what he does all day. He goes to Canal Street. He goes to 34th Street. He buys Levis. He tears off price tags with his teeth. There are little plastics everywhere. 

When tragedy erupts on national TV, the house guest glues himself to the sofa and watches. 

Please, shut it, I plead, the children. I want to shield them from what’s happened. What’s happened is someone shot up an elementary school. Twenty children are dead. Plus teachers. He says, you must tell them. He says this with great authority. You cannot hide them from reality. He says, In my country everyone knows danger is a part of life. It is an ugly, violent world. In my country— 

Your country is not my country, I say. 

At this he looks at me with great pity, as if there are no words for someone so naive. 

I admit, I am grateful for his company. Having a houseguest gives me a reason to put on pants, brush my teeth. To look presentable. To resist the urge to crawl back to bed once the children are at school. With the houseguest around, a symbiosis ensues. I purchase Lemon Pledge and attack all surfaces. I dust the blinds; I dust the lampshades. I offer him coffee. He does not drink American drip. Do I have espresso? I lug out the machine we got for our wedding. It has not been used in almost a decade. I froth the milk. He props his feet on the coffee table. Here I draw the line. Shoes off, I say. He cocks his head. Why, are you in mourning? 

Without apology, he imparts a litany of dietary restrictions. It is not so much for religious reasons—the houseguest does not wear a head covering—but to honor tradition. Where I come from, he says. Where my family comes from, before they were exiled, women stayed in the kitchen. No milk and meat. This much I know: Don’t bathe the calf in the mother’s milk, whatever that means. No fire on Saturdays, he says. Fire? He points to the stove, and I begin to understand how random it is, what we choose to believe, the tribal laws we follow. I point to the fridge, the stocked pantry. Be my guest, I say. 

When he asks for Cornflake, I buy Cornflakes but he means cereal. What he really wants are Rice Krispies. He wants watermelon, pita, salad chopped small as baby teeth. 

I wash his laundry. I ball his socks. I do this, even though he is perfectly capable. If he were back home, he would be in the army. He is not in the army. He will not go to the army because he had been sick as a child, this close to death, and the army has labeled him unfit to serve. 

Lucky you, I tell him. 

That’s one way to see it, he says, looking past me to the changing colors of the leaves. 

Weeks pass. Months. He cultivates a little goatee, like a Chia Pet. His smell penetrates. It is in the towels, in our bread, deep in the car’s upholstery. There’s no escaping it. Wherever we go he comes with: to restaurants, to see the Rockettes at Radio City. Expenses add up. On a family road trip to Vermont, he stares at his phone as snow falls softly out the window. Everyone is squeezed into the back seat. Even the children ask: Is he moving in? 

Take a compliment, my husband says. Your guest feels at home. Isn’t that what you wanted? 

I no longer know what I want. 

When he finally leaves, he embraces me in a musky hug and says, thanks a million, mom. 

Months later, I shoot my husband a look. 

Not again, he says. 

Love thy stranger, I start in. Welcome thy stranger, provide for and care for thy stranger. The mitzvah is repeated more times than any other, I say. 36 times! I do not say how lonely it is to be home alone all day. To be a mother. To feel left behind. 

I hope you don’t regret it, my husband relents. 

The second houseguest is a success! This one helps with the dishes. This one secures the cap on the orange juice, shuts the freezer all the way so the ice cream doesn’t wilt the carton and turn to soup. Whatever we put in front of him he eats—with gusto. Chicken and rice! He exclaims! Just like home! He lovingly plays with the children: catch, cards, a type of Uno, slipping the colored deck between wiggly toes. They squeal with delight. He teaches them how to juggle a soccer ball, to count to a hundred. They want Monopoly. They want to be property lords. Fine, he concedes, provided I am the shoe. 

The children become attached. They roll around on his bed, video chat with his dogs, with his friends, with his siblings back home. He volunteers to stay in so we can have a date night. Our manny! I say, what a dream! My husband and I get dressed up. Over a bottle of wine, we talk about the houseguest. 

Isn’t he the best? 

Don’t push it, my husband says. 

I try instilling boundaries. Here is the laundry. Here is a bike. The locksmith cuts him a key. 

Still, when he goes out at night, I wait up in bed to hear him come in. 

He’s a grown man, my husband says. 

He’s somebody’s child. A stranger in a strange land. 

Relax, my husband says. 

I can’t relax, I say. 

Let me help, he says, reaching for me. 

The third one does not last long. She is pretty and quiet with enormous brown eyes, emoji eyes, eyes of those manufactured dolls whose back cavities fill up with water to produce actual tears. She keeps her door closed. There is a boyfriend back home, so she sits on her bed whispering to him over video. If it weren’t for the occasional fake nail lying around like a pistachio nut, the long strands of black hair in the shower, slowing the drain, the strange mewling from her door late at night, like the sound of a wounded animal lost from its pack, we would barely know she was here. 

Talk to her, my husband says. 

What do I say? I’m not her mother. Besides, there’s a language barrier. 

Think of something, he says. 

I ask about the boyfriend. He is in the army. All her friends are in the army. She scrolls through her phone, showing photos. They are teenagers in green. When she returns, she will have to join the army, too. 

That stinks, I say. 

I can’t wait, she says. I will be a combat soldier! 

This shocks me although maybe it shouldn’t. I try to picture her thin body slung with a gun. It is hard enough to get her to come to the table. 

At dinner, she barely eats. 

Homesick, my husband mouths. 

I scour the specialty stores for peanut puffs. I buy the chocolates wrapped in printed cows. The houseguest is unimpressed. It’s not the same. Nothing is the same. 

Maybe she’s depressed? My husband lifts an eyebrow. 

Depression is my department. As if it’s not hard enough to exist in any liminal space, it must be hell when your body is wrenched from your heart, miles and miles out of reach. 

Kids sense things. They tiptoe in, snuggle against her like puppies until she requests privacy. They wield snacks. She refuses. She has squirreled away her own crackers and cookies. Or she’s already eaten. A carnivore on pasta night, she’s a vegetarian the next, she has become a breatharian. She is shrinking before us, her brown skin sallow, her eyes hollowed out as abandoned shells. 

My husband buys her a stuffed bear for Valentine’s Day. It is clutching a satin heart that reads BE MINE. Amit, he says. This is from all of us. Your family, your home away from home, which sends her crying again. 

The fourth houseguest arrives in August. 

You gotta be kidding, my husband says. 

36 times, I utz him. Double chai. 

I’m tired of strangers living under my roof. 

But are we even strangers if we share the same blood? 

This house guest is on a mission. He has an app on his phone so his country can track him. Trouble on the subway? Scuffle on the street? One push of the button, and they’ll swoop right in. How can you be so sure? I say. He puffs up his chest. We are everywhere. My country leaves no one behind. He says this with conviction, ironclad faith, a loyalty that’s foreign to me. He is no ordinary house guest but an emissary from the ministry of foreign affairs. He is here to increase feelings of goodwill, to improve public opinion. In case you haven’t noticed, PR is not our strong suit. We could use as much help as we can get. 

Word has spread. There is a network, a listserv to connect travelers in need. Our home has landed on the list. With this list comes a steady stream of backpacks and Blundstones, electronics, of heady cologne. One house guest begets another. They come for two days, five days, a week. They are post-army, before university, between jobs. They are just passing through. 

I hand out keys like Twix bars. I do the sheets and towels at newborn speed. I recall the time we had bedbugs. I replenish the fridge. I make chicken: braised, roasted, fried, grilled. They want schnitzel. They want bagelim. They want hummus. 

You’re not in Kansas anymore, I say. 

Still, they complain. Where they come from, a pot is always simmering on the stove. It’s not so damn cold. Their weather is milder. Better. They do not hesitate to remind us. Their fruit is sweeter. Is this what you call an avocado? My country, my country, they chant in a round.

My country invented the What’s App.

My country invented Waze.

My country invented solar panels.

My country invented PillCam, the lens of your colonoscopy, the camera in your phone

This seltzer machine you drink from

The flash drive, the microchip, the cherry tomato

Why leave, then? I say.

Your country has Times Square, they say as consolation. Broadway! That is all yours.

It’s not entirely smooth sailing. One house guest takes a jar of spare change, but that’s why it’s called spare, the jar should be donated to tzedakah anyway; the house guest has done us a mitzvah by taking it off our hands. Umbrellas are up for grabs, winter coats. A bicycle goes missing. Does anything really belong to anyone? We turn a cheek. We make chicken and rice. One brings a friend without asking. My husband calls it arrogant, rude. I say, What’s another mouth? They double up, triple up, they are three to a bed. I am defenseless to the tide of strangers. I hand out hats, gloves, scarves. I want to be a better person. I want to love the other as you love yourself.

The last house guest is a surprise. He is the cousin of a friend of a friend of a previous guest. It’s been ages. All of our house guests have since flown the coop, making their way to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, they’ve seen more of the States than we could ever dream. They’ve visited remote beaches, smoked hashish and danced in the Far East; they have fallen in and out of love. Occasionally, we’ll get a text wishing us a sweet and happy new year. Mostly, we are a blip in the past until this one shows up on the step, chin in hand like a Rodin sculpture, with a suitcase the size of a couch.

I wasn’t expecting you, I say.

His skin is dark, his hair unwashed, curled shaggily around his ears like a stray. His eyes are the color of the Mediterranean Sea.

Let’s keep him, my daughter says.

We show him the shower. We make the bed. He keeps his door open. When I pass, he is playing acoustic guitar or reading literature in translation. He knows many tongues.

At night, I can hear him breathing.

Let’s make wild crazy love, I say to my husband.

Outside, a pandemic is raging. We haven’t left the house for months.

What’s gotten into you?

The house guest, I do not say.

It’s not like he parades around in his towel, flexing, whipping that untamed hair. He stays clothed, if cologned. There’s the scent, of course. His eyes, clear as Roman glass.

But it’s true, everything is different. Just like that, I am flooded by the imperative of youth, of possibility, of all that foolish hope.

He has been circumventing the globe. O the places he has been! Bulgaria, Cambodia, Ecuador. He has eaten crickets in Guatemala, guinea pig in Peru. He swipes through his phone. We lean in for a closer look: there’s our house guest atop a mountain, beside a campfire, shirtless in the equatorial heat. For years, this has been his rhythm: He wanders, he meets people, he stays for a while, he moves on. Only recently he’s been caught in the maelstrom of sickness, stymied by travel restrictions, which is what brought him here.

You are my refuge, the last houseguest says, raising his glass.

His accent is hard to pin down. He is Colombian, Greek, Brazilian, he is Moroccan, Lebanese. Every region claims him. Throughout his journeys, locals and fellow travelers alike are floored to learn what he actually is. Yemeni. That is, he’s Arab and Jew.

Often, he lets them believe what they want. He is from everywhere and nowhere. It is simpler to be a chameleon, he says. To blend. Sometimes he tells them.

Why is Israeli a bad word? He asks at dinner, serving himself chicken and rice.

My husband opens his mouth.

I don’t understand, the houseguest goes on, fork in the air, you too have a leader you don’t like. A president you don’t agree with. You too have a deranged, power hungry, thieving lunatic who does whatever he wants with no regard for the good of the country. His feelings are not your feelings. We have the same. Government is corrupt. Why can’t anyone see?

I lay a raft of string beans on his plate.

You have the luxury to simply disagree. We must fight for what we don’t believe in. Imagine sending your child to patrol a checkpoint, or to defend a settlement that has no business existing. Can you imagine? You’re a mother.

We just want peace, I say.

There will be no peace while our neighbors want us dead.

You don’t have to stoke it, my husband says.

The land of milk and honey, he snorts. What a balagan. Why do you think there are more of us living outside than inside? Who’s rushing home to a mess like this?

Where will you go?

He’s not sure. Wherever the tickets are cheap.

Before he leaves, I tell him to keep the key.

Don’t be a stranger, I say.

He tucks his luggage into the closet, taking only a backpack with him, in order to travel light.

That was then.

By now, he’s returned. Everyone has returned. There are funerals to attend, rallies, vigils, reserves.

In bed, above his room, I think of his suitcase. Sturdy, upright, bursting at the seams.

I think of it as I hold onto my husband. I think of it as nightmares invade my sleep.

Days turn to months. House guests take to the sky, the sea, they storm by tank and foot. Many have been taken. Burned, brutalized, raped beyond recognition. No one has heard from Amit. Meanwhile, war rages on, long beyond the unconscionable. Somehow, it is spring. Out the window I picture my last house guest in uniform, trussed in reluctant badges and stars, soaring over a chasmic scorched pit wrought by his country, by mine. In the pit sobs a child. There is no shelter from the horror. This is how we love the other. When there is no other. When we are all but houseguests of this bitter earth. 

Sara Lippmann is the author of the novel Lech and the story collections Doll Palace and Jerks. With Seth Rogoff, she is co-editing Smashing the Tablets: Radical Retellings of the Hebrew Bible, forthcoming from SUNY Press. 

Art: Lindsay Barnett